The British motor show is something of a mystery.
It vies with the Ideal Home Exhibition as the country’s best-attended consumer show. The proliferation of enthusiast magazines and specialist newspaper supplements and the arrival of various car-based Internet sites indicate there’s tremendous interest in cars and motoring. The Top Gear television programme gets astonishing viewing figures.
The trend is supported by new car buying. Cars are better-equipped and more competitively priced than they have ever been. The economy remains strong, employment is high and interest rates are lowish. The result is that more new cars were registered over the past four years - over 10 million - than at any time in the country’s history.
Britain is in the grip of motor-mania, and yet, compared with other major motor shows around the world, the one here perennially fails to attract big attendances. As a nation, we are interested in cars, we buy lots of them, but we don’t want to look at them en masse at a motor show.
Attendances at recent British motor shows were well below half a million. Those at other international shows were huge in comparison. Just under one million people went to the last Frankfurt show. The Paris and Tokyo events pull in over 1.4 million each. Detroit, steeped in car culture but with a smaller captive audience, attracted over 770,000 visitors this year.
The attendance stand-out is Bologna. While the traditional Italian motor show in Turin is no more, the event in Bologna, a university town in the largely agricultural Emilia Romagna region, manages to attract 1.2 million visitors. One reason for its success is believed to be the inclusion of motorcycles and racing cars alongside the usual road cars. It may be something for Britain’s show organisers to contemplate.
Bologna has another secret ingredient. Within an hour’s drive are the headquarters and factories of three of the world’s most famous marques, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. In Italian automotive industry terms, this is the Holy Land.
Sadly, Emilia Romagna’s enthusiasm for cars does not find an echo in the English Midlands, in spite of the proximity of Jaguar, Land Rover, Peugeot and Aston Martin to the National Exhibition Centre. The area is more waste land than Holy Land.
The NEC, which wrested the motor show from London’s inadequate and cramped Earl’s Court venue in 1978, looked good on paper. It had its own train station, Birmingham airport is close by and it is surrounded by a good road network. The enthusiasm for the opening NEC motor show was encouraging, with an attendance of over 908,000.
The level was never to be repeated, however. The number of people who went to the biennial show in 2002 was below 450,000. It signalled the need for a re-think. The show organisers, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, attempted to jump-start the 2004 event with various driving experiences and live demonstrations designed to appeal more to family audiences. It also switched the date from the autumn - and its proximity to the Paris show - to spring.The result of a lot of effort was a small increase in visitor numbers to around 475,000. It did not produce the breakthrough the SMMT needed.
The experiment was handicapped by extensive railway engineering work that prevented people from using the NEC station much of the time. Neither did it help that the BMW and Mercedes-Benz brands decided not to take stand space.
Birmingham seldom attracted any of the new model debuts that characterise most international motor shows. The absence was a reflection of the decline of the country’s indigenous motor industry. If a multi-national does not unveil a new model at its own national show, it does so in neutral Geneva (where attendance this year was 747,700, up 2.5% on 2004), or at one of the big shows in the United States where it knows it will sell lots of cars. Birmingham just isn’t on their radar any more.
Jon Goodman, director of PSA-Peugeot Citroen in the UK, notes: “Birmingham wasn’t getting the world premieres like Geneva or Paris. From a media perspective, that makes it less interesting.” And that matters a lot, according to Paul Thomas, managing director of Ford in Britain. “We weren’t getting the international coverage. That’s what creates the momentum,” he says. The underlying malaise, though, involved the NEC’s costs - for exhibitors and show-goers. A manufacturer’s show stand at the NEC could easily cost £1 million. It is the sort of money that could buy a lot of full-page advertisements in a national newspaper.
The public was undoubtedly put off by the high cost of a day out at the NEC. A day’s car parking, which went directly to the NEC, was £8.50 in 2004. The individual entrance fee, which was set by the SMMT, was £16 for an adult and £9 for a child. In other words, the cost of a family day out at the 2004 motor show could easily amount to £120 with food and snacks included.
By contrast, a day ticket for the last Frankfurt show was under £9. At the recent Geneva motor show, the entrance fee for a day was just over a fiver. A one-way ticket for the very efficient bus service from Geneva railway station to the exhibition centre near the airport cost around £1.35.
The SMMT’s 2004 experience proved the catalyst for much more radical change. In February, the society’s manufacturer committee met at Forbes House, London, to consider three rival bids to stage the 2006 event. They were from ExCeL in London’s Docklands, Earl’s Court and the NEC, whose presentation was in conjunction with Haymarket Publishing, the owners of a portfolio of car magazines. Details of the voting remain secret, but all sources confirm that the ExCeL presentation was a stand-out and that the NEC/Haymarket scheme smacked of “arrogance and complacency”. Earl’s Court was never really in the running.
So, the 2006 British motor show will be held at ExCeL on so-far unspecified dates between May and July.
The switch represents a leap into the unknown, though most exhibitors are very pleased with the return to London and its far larger catchment area. “It’s also much easier to do a lot of other things as well as the motor show if it’s in London. You could do the show one day, and a concert, the theatre or a sports event on another,” says Kevin Wale, chairman and managing director of Vauxhall.
ExCeL seems to have the right ingredients. It will be a much more compact show, more on the scale of the Geneva event than the sprawling NEC. There are seven hotels on the site - and a posh Four Seasons at Canary Wharf for visiting bigwigs. The arena has a dedicated station on the Docklands Light Railway (Custom House), which connects with London Underground’s Jubilee line at Canning Town. That means a relatively simple transfer from the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. City Airport is a five-minute taxi ride away.
While ExCeL has staged plenty of big sporting events, popular entertainments and trade shows, including the boat show and a couple of other motor shows - Motorexpo and Max Power London - a big international motor show will take it to a new level. How it will cope remains unknown. The arena boasts 4,000 car parking spaces, for example, but that seems a modest number for a show that is expected to clear half a million visitors.
There are plenty of other unknowns, not the least of which is whether BMW and Mercedes-Benz will return to the show; neither company will say for sure.Will a London show also attract a few of the world premieres that were absent in Birmingham? Perhaps above all, though, will a motor show at ExCeL be an affordable day out for a family? If it costs as much as it did at the NEC, that family might decide a day at Bluewater - through the Blackwall Tunnel and a few miles down the A20 - might be more interesting.
Retail therapy, after all, is one of the country’s great pastimes these days.